If Ken Miller had been a better electrical engineer, there’d be a lot less music in the world. Luckily for Longmont, he wasn’t.
Two decades ago, Miller took a break from school and fateful road trip that brought him to Colorado. On the way back home to Michigan, he took out a lease on 508 Fifth Avenue and Miller Music was born.
“After one semester, that was all he needed to know to know that wasn’t were he needed to be,” Seth Miller said of his father’s brief foray into the nonmusical world. “He went home [from Colorado] and started packing his things and told his mom he was moving. We have some fun letters from grandma from around that time.”
Now, forty years later, a lot has changed from the small shop Miller set up to give music lessons and sell instruments on consignment. But a lot hasn’t.
“Service is still a mainstay of what we do,” Seth Miller said. “We’re one of the few stores left that is still a full-line music store.”
The present day Miller Music is one-stop shopping for a variety of musical needs. Customers can buy instruments, take lessons, or get repairs done onsite. They can find music or set their kids up to join band or orchestra. The Miller Music of the past was a little more limited.
“The other music store in town when he started actually gave him sheet music to hang up in his shop,” Seth Miller said. “They said, ‘It doesn’t even look like a music store. You have to make it more presentable.’”
Still, within three years Miller had moved beyond his shoestring beginnings to offer lessons and a full line of instruments at both his original location and one he opened in North Longmont. In those days, pianos were a staple at the north store, while the Fifth Avenue location became “rock and roll headquarters,” with a selection of electric guitars and amps.
In 1986, Miller consolidated the two locations in a new store—its current digs at 464 Main Street next to St. Stephen’s Plaza. Not a bad start for a kid who used to write letters back home to his mom on the labels from the can goods she sent him to eat.
If it seems like an unlikely success story, it’s a sure sign you didn’t know Miller. By all accounts, the triumphs of Miller Music can be attributed to Ken’s high-energy personality and gregarious ways.
“He was the original networker,” Seth Miller said. “Before social networking was a thing, he’d get out there and do the real deal.”
In one legendary example, Ken Miller was watching a movie at the theater in Longmont when the reel broke, as happened with movies of the time. While it was being fixed, Miller wasted no time scrambling over the seats to the front of the house where he jumped on the piano and began to sing and play—essentially treating the audience to a live commercial for his recently opened stores.
“Someone later said they wondered if he bribed someone to burn out the reel,” Seth Miller said with a laugh. “It was just too convenient.”
If Miller never missed a chance to plug the music store, then he never missed a chance to use it for the community either. A long-time Rotary member, Miller contributed to countless fundraisers over the years, provided sound equipment for events such as the Boulder County Fair, and helped support the Longmont Youth Symphony. That tradition of giving back continues at Miller Music today.
Sadly, Ken Miller passed away in 2008, and that might have been the end of a beautiful music story. Instead, his son Seth put aside a promising career in California real estate and stepped into some very big shoes—albeit ones that were just his style.
“It’s been very exciting to see Seth come in because I can see a lot of his dad’s energy in him,” said Linda Miller, Ken’s wife and Seth’s mom. “He very much has his father’s personality.”
Although he might be a lot like his dad, there are some differences. Where his father was an ever-present fixture in the store, Seth prefers to quietly orchestrate things from behind the scenes, he said.
“My dad was definitely the front man of the business,” he said. “Now we run things a lot differently. My employees sometimes get confused for the owner and I think that’s a good thing. I’m quite okay with my employees being the face of Miller Music.”
Although the employees might be the smiling face of the store, its heart is still all Miller—and still all about the music. Rather than simply run the store his dad started, Seth Miller has set about moving the business forward.
Since taking over he’s brought in a one-of-a-kind electronics repairman, added DJ and karaoke services, and brought in a line of electric guitars created specifically for small children. He also has several new offerings in the works—including renovating the store’s attic into space for a music co-op.
“It’s really practicing what we preach in the fullest way of encouraging music participation and creation,” he said.
For a monthly fee, the co-op will allow local musicians a creative space where they would have access to wholesale pricing, equipment, and a chance to collaborate with other musicians.
In many ways the co-op and other recent endeavors are a microcosm of what Ken Miller started all those years ago—a place for Longmont to learn to love music.
“You’re never really isolated in music,” Seth Miller said. “It’s a bridge to creativity. We feel like we improve our community just by exposing people to music.”
– By Jolie Breeden